The Truth About The Period Taboo in Our Culture

Our culture is inundated with euphemisms about menstruation: Aunt Flo? Shark Week? Bloody Sunday? Code Red? Red name a few.

These euphemisms serve a purpose: giving us words to describe what's culturally taboo. They perpetuate the same myth: menstruation is impure, wrong or even dangerous!

It’s the subtext in the magazines, the advertisements and on TV: menstruation is gross, blood is and talking about periods is embarrassing at best!

Period stigma is a form of misogyny. It conditions us to live menstruation as something to be hidden and even dishonorable.

But how did menstruation become taboo?

While not all societies viewed menstruation negatively, menstrual euphemisms and various period taboos are old (probably pre-language) and almost universal. The creation of menstrual taboos took place independently and repeatedly across different people, times and geographies (from the Bible to the Quran to The first Latin Encyclopedia...). But scholars still don’t agree about why.

The origin (and function) of negative menstrual taboo is still heavily debated and many theories have emerged to explain it: Freud said it was our fear of blood. Anthropologist Shirley Lindenbaum theorized in 1972 that taboo was a form of natural population control, limiting sexual contact with “pollution” stigma. In 2000, Historian Robert S. McElvaine coined the term non-menstrual syndrome or NMS to describe the reproductive envy that led males to stigmatize menstruation, and to socially dominate women as “psychological compensation for what men cannot do biologically”. Clellan Ford postulated that the menstrual taboo was developed because early societies knew of its “toxic, disease-causing effects”. Of course, we now know that menstrual blood is not toxic.

All of these theories are tied to the time and place in which they were developed, come with many controversies and some were formed with a presumption of menstrual negativity.

We may never know how, exactly, menstrual taboos were established...

What's clear though, is that the way we talk about menstruation is slow to change because of how deeply menstrual taboos are ingrained in our cultures, beliefs, and histories. The societies which give us our understanding of our bodies were formed around these taboos. Changing taboos requires the systems to change.

And what about you?

It’s one thing to notice these taboos when we see them in the media, or even to recognize when someone says something to us like, “eww! that's gross!”. But it’s a lot trickier to notice when we fall in taboos with ourselves. We’ve absorbed these messages from the media and advertisers for years—so we often don’t even notice how they’ve influenced the ways we think about ourselves.

But we can start. We can catch ourselves, in the moment, when we’re using euphemistic language unconsciously—we can change the way we talk to ourselves.

And when we change the way we talk to ourselves, we change the way we feel about it.

As we change the way we feel about something - we change the way we act and speak, the way we carry ourselves, and even the way it appears to others.

Our use of euphemisms does more than reflect the social views of menstruation. It exposes how distant we are from our own bodies. These euphemisms start in childhood and set in motion a lifetime of skirting around the body, of body illiteracy. When people don’t know their bodies, their bodies become a less likely source of power and pleasure.

Here are some ways I’ve learned to think openly about menstruation - to treat myself in a way that’s in alignment with my own philosophy, instead of the messages I’ve absorbed from outside.

As I’ve practiced these things, I’ve found myself feeling so much happier—more vital, more beautiful, more confident. I bet you will too.

Pay attention to the details. Your thoughts when you get that first cramp, the way you act when taking menstrual products off the shelf, the way you put tampons in your bag... What's the first thing that comes to your mind? Do you say to yourself, “Ugh, again; that’s no good”?

Do you immediately start thinking about what you’re going to do to hide it? I know I’ve done that—plenty.

But what would happen if you said something fun or goofy to yourself, “I earned that one!”, "At least, I'm not pregnant" or "Guess who's back...", make a habit related to it (for exercise, for reading or just that time of the month when you treat yourself as you wish), talk to a friend, or just laugh about it. The goal here isn't to over-celebrate as some periods can be pretty painful both physically and emotionally, but to add some positivity to it!

Practice saying it even if you don’t believe it yet. It can be tough to push back against messages we’ve spent years absorbing.

After a while, if you keep reinforcing that new message, you’ll find you start to feel a lot better about yourself.

How about other people around you?

While there is deep value in calling things by their names, it’s also critical to respect cultural and religious differences. It’s useful to meet people where they are, rather than overtly schooling, shaming, or using terms that go over people’s heads. For people with histories of trauma, and/or whose menstruation may feel like a betrayal of their gender, euphemisms can be protective.

I find that asking questions instead of making statements works really well. Instead of "don’t you think you should call something by its name" I might say, ‘’What do you use to describe menstruation? Why? Where did you learn it? What does it do for you?" Pulling back from taking a stance—we should be careful about telling others what to do.

“And that is how change happens. One gesture. One person. One moment at a time.”

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